Gay and Catholic – A Reflection – 2nd

Before meditating on Eve’s topic of friendship, a brief excursus on vocation: one is tempted to say “we don’t do this in Orthodoxy” but that line is to fake. Generally, though, there isn’t much discussion of a “Call” to the priesthood, a vocational idea unheard of in the saints. Thus there is no parallel lay idea of “well what’s my calling?” Eve’s reflections on vocation – while not using Orthodox language – are very helpful.  As she described her work in a pregnancy center with other women and how this was her vocation, I felt very much as if I’d found a soul-sister walking a parallel path to my own, once described as “Tech Support as a Spiritual Path.”

We are all called to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.  For most of the history of the church for most of the people that means as laity. For my salvation, however, God has used people like Father Joseph to help me work out my salvation and his in a relationship. It is in relationship that our salvation is made to happen. The Church’s relationship is hierarchical, structured. It is one of authority and love. Like a marriage.

When Layman X is working out his salvation it may gradually dawn on him – as St John Bosco (Roman Catholic) once said – ordination is absolutely necessary for him to work out his salvation. That’s not the idea of “vocation” that I hear usually in today’s discussions and it’s not the idea that I hear in Eve’s book. It is, however, despite John Bosco being RC, the idea in Orthodoxy. (I first heard this line in 1984 or 85, so forgive me if I have the attribution wrong! Was it the Cure D’Ars?) When a community is together working out their salvation they come to the realization that you are the right priest for them. This happened to some saints, chased all over town by the parish demanding their ordination. You might say that’s a call! But it’s a rare thing. It’s a near-fantasy for someone who wants to have their ego gratified by having the Church “Call” them to the priesthood. My first realization that I wasn’t called at all was a phone call from a priest saying “I don’t think you’re called to the priesthood, but I’d love to serve a liturgy with you as a deacon.”  As I felt my ego deflate the escaping noxious smell made me realize this had all been some ego game.  I had never been  “Called” and I wasn’t using this to work out my salvation.

So, for Orthodoxy (generally), we all know our vocation: working out our salvation in fear and trembling. We do have various tools and the selection of those tools falls to you and your Spiritual Father or Mother. The hypostatic freedom of the laity means you have a lot of power in that relationship: it’s not one of “obedience” like it would be if you were a monastic although some converts (clergy and laity) act like it is.

Much of the book is about Eve finding a vocation, a second reason this book is not about “Gay and Orthodox” is we don’t have vocations as such.  God is not “calling me” to have spent 25 years as a Customer Service agent of one sort or another, but rather, after being in Customer Service for that long, has it helped me get saved? Are your choices furthering your salvation?

It is this same approach that would be used for Orthodox who wanted to explore Eve’s friendship model.

In Middle School and High School friendships were the end all and be all of my life.  Ditto in the Fraternity in College.  Because of my fraternity experience, I recognized Eve’s discussion of “Vowed” friendships as creating these familial bond (“In Vinculis” or “In the bonds” is how we sign fraternal communications). That’s a vowed kinship that holds, in the common law tradition, a more valid claim on one’s life than even blood.  A legal relationship by verbal ro written contract made a “real” relationship more than hearts or spirits.  An adopted child is, in some real, legal ways, more my child in common law than a child born in my marriage.  A choice is made and affirmed in law.  It is the same as or even stronger than marriage.

After college, I had housemates – six of us in Astoria, 10 or so in Asheville until I shared an apartment with Todd, 14 in Buffalo, 3 – 8 of us here in SF, until I moved into my own apartment.  Now, if I want social life I have to leave the flat and go to the Church, the Office or, maybe, the Elks’ Lodge.  There are volunteer options through work and the parish (and the Elks) but my circle of friends as such is a lot smaller now than it used to be.  Eve’s book called me to fix that: to take actions that would send me out into the world in socially and spiritually salvific ways.

Any relationship must be approached as “Salvific or Not”.  I read recently a response to Eve’s book that questioned her about her willingness to enter into close personal friendships – even committed ones – with non-Christians. I thought I saw a link to that article on Eve’s Twitter feed and maybe I was wrong – I’ve lost that article. But it took her to task for suggesting that a friendship with a non-believer could be a valuable as one with a believer.  Asking, again, the question about working out my salvation, I will note: there are some relationships within the Church that are salvific.  And some that are not.  There are some relationships outside of the Church that are salvific.  And there are some that are not.  One good thing at least: a non-believer will not join me in an engrossed gossip session about Church politics.

Eve confronts some issues that I recognize. The fear of  being so lonely that on is in danger of “being eaten by our cats” is one that made my day.  There are other, more serious dangers, though: the desire to be first, the desire to be exclusive, the temptation to get sexually involved, and the urge to make this friendship as much like a marriage as possible.  These are things I’ve done, getting jealous of straight male friends falling in love, getting married, etc.  See the earlier reflection about the imbalances caused by this particular weakness. There are too many TV shows and melodramas about same-sex attracted men and women who get married in their heads to their boss or their best friends and then go on murderous rampages.  For what it’s worth, I’ve known a straight girl who ruined an entire office having a fake relationship with her boss.  I’m sure it was news to him.

Eve’s advice in these situations is invaluable and very Orthodox: yes, you will. So buck up and don’t do it again. We are human beings and we are prone to failure.  Can you be saved?  Yes. This failure of a friendship, right here, is what God has given you to use for that. We sin. Our very sins, through confession and forgiveness, become the rungs of our personal Ladder of Divine Ascent.  In Orthodoxy even our Death is part of God’s toolkit for our salvation.  But how will we use it, that’s the question we have to ask.

Eve doesn’t address what do to with a few sorts and conditions of people: the ex who doesn’t understand, the other party that wants to get into your pants (even deeply in love). Internet porn. She does address anonymous sex, but, truth be told, while I hate bringing sex to confession it is more embarrassing to admit that I don’t hate confessing my anger, my judgementalism, my snobbishness. There are lots of books that address that sort of stuff, of course, but there are huge amounts of time when that’s way more important to my life than my perceived or imagined (lack of) sex life.  It is good to note, however, that Eve’s advice works here too: yes, you will. So buck up and don’t do it again. We are human beings and we are prone to failure.

I’m not sure but I don’t think Eve address the reactions of her gay friends. Do they feel judged? Do they still exist as friends?

In today’s vernacular we are inclined to ask about a religious or political community “Are they Gay Friendly?”  We ask that as if everyone knows instantly what we really mean.  We don’t draw lines though. We’re looking for a nice religious (or political) commitment that won’t prevent me from doing what I’ve been doing. The liberal church that does gay marriages but balks at the member who has a different “Partner” every couple of weeks or live-in “Friend” every six months or so will be branded as “not gay friendly.” The meaning is, “Can I be a member of that community and do whatever the heck I want?”  Orthodoxy, like Catholicism is not Gay friendly in that meaning. There are persons who are members of the Orthodox Church who are attracted to members of their own sex.  There are members of the Orthodox Church who are attracted to members of the Opposite Sex.  There are members of the Orthodox Church who are attracted to members of both sexes.  But: if you want to use sexual expression as a tool in working out your salvation, you may only do it that (in the Orthodox Church) within the confines of a sacramental marriage. So, no: you cannot do whatever the heck you want.

If you ask an Orthodox writer or speaker, “can gays be saved?”  The answer is yes but not really because there are no class of persons in God’s language. There are persons. So then if you ask “Can that lesbian, over there be saved?”  The answer is “mind your own business”.  Ask rather, “Can I be saved?”  The answer is always yes.  But that’s not the important question:  “What must I do to be saved?” is the only question worth asking. Who are you? You don’t need to search out a special vocation, just look around your life. Your identity is not an individual act but rather a social creation of a communion of persons. Where do you stop and “others” begin? These are the people, these are the things, these are the choices God has given you – all of you – to get saved.

I read Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith to explore the commonalities in our faith and living out those faiths.  By way of shorthand  I might explain, well, “I’m not Catholic and I’m not gay either.”  I’m a sinner in the Orthodox Church. Such technicalities aside, though: I find Eve’s reflection to be very helpful in sparking my own parallel reflections.  If I were to write such a book about being the sinner I am within the Orthodox church I might draw on many of the same sort of experiences and friendships used for the same sort of healing. While I wouldn’t use the same sort of languages, I would be moving to the same ends. Our struggle to live our faith in a world increasingly unfriendly to that process of salvation. In my head Fr Joseph’s Defeating Sin (I have not yet read Fire from Ashes which arrived from Amazon with the current volume) and Fr Meletios’ Steps of Transformation address some of the same sort of material, they are more general. Gay and Catholic is well written for persons dealing with a specific sort of temptation. It’s not about the theology or the teachings of the faith which are taken as a given, but rather about how to be faithful.  That it is written by someone who also is living the same sort of ascetic struggle (podvig, jihad) makes it very valuable for me.

Gay and Catholic: A Reflection – 1st

When he saw I was reading Eve Tushnet’s Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith a friend commented, “I can’t understand why you’re reading that: you’re Orthodox.” Of course he said that without fully understanding the differences or similarities between the two Churches: and in the area of “Teh Gay” they are very similar indeed. While Orthodoxy doesn’t say we are “intrinsically disordered”  (or even use the same sort of legalistic language) our Church is quite clear

Homosexuality is to be approached as the result of humanity’s rebellion against God, and so against its own nature and well-being. It is not to be taken as a way of living and acting for men and women made in God’s image and likeness… Those instructed and counseled in Orthodox Christian doctrine and ascetical life who still want to justify their behavior may not participate in the Church’s sacramental mysteries, since to do so would not help, but harm them.
OCA Encyclical on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life

So I read Gay and Catholic because I live in the same world as Eve: a same-sex attracted person living in a community that asks celibacy of all members not living within the bonds of Sacramental Marriage (between one man and one woman).  The Orthodox Church’s primary argument is for salvation – is this thing salvific, ie, will it lead to the salvation of this person here.  While that may sound way more liberal than the legal language of disorder, the Church’s teaching is clear: giving in to same-sex attraction as with all temptation is a result of a breakdown in the image of God.  Please note: this is not a commentary on Same-Sex Attraction, per se. Being so tempted is not a sin. We are all sinners.  The same encyclical letter cited above counsels Same-Sex Attracted people to “…seek assistance in discovering the specific causes of their homosexual orientation, and to work toward overcoming its harmful effects in their lives.” Notice we’re not urged to “get fixed” or “become straight” but rather to overcome the harmful effects. It is in seeking that, that I read this book.

Eve’s linking of her experience as a Lesbian with her Alcoholism was joy to read.  Not that one caused the other, but rather that she saw the parallels.  Her healing process on one topic parallels the other. This was something I learned working in a  rehab clinic in North Carolina. The OCA document as well, seems to agree, saying, “People with homosexual tendencies are to be helped to admit these feelings to themselves and to others who will not reject or harm them.” It’s like the first step of a twelve step process.  You have to admit there’s an issue to fix before you can work on it. Eve see’s coming out of the closet – being public with her same-sex attraction – as an important step.  But it is at this point (which was about 2/5 of the way through the book) that something began to change in my reading.  I’m not sure if it was there for Eve or just me.

Any reaction to a book will have good and bad spots: I only had a couple of issues with the book, but I think they are major ones. I want to say here, first – before going into the bad – that I loved the rest of the book.  Enjoy the “controversy” but don’t miss the rest of the reflection!

I really have a huge problem with saying “I am gay”.  I’m not saying I stay in the closet – I’m certainly out in every part of my life where I have any control over it.  But I think the reality is that I “feel” gay: not that I “am” gay.  I know that some groups are always trying to pin homosexuality on genetics which would make it like eye color and even more hardwired than race, but sexuality as we understand it in the first world really is a first world problem. History seems to indicate that people with same-sex attraction got married and were culturally straight all their lives with little or no harm.  It’s only today with our focus on individuality and “freedom” (meaning, rather, license) that we allow for and expect people to act on every little feeling they have inside.  I “am” gay because I like sex with guys as I “am” a carnivore because I love bacon.  I can be a vegetarian – but I’d still love bacon.  I can even be an “ethical vegan” opposed to the anthropocentric use, objectification and slaughter of other living creatures – but still admit that the taste of bacon is one that I love.  I “am” gay rather as I love bacon.  It’s fun. It’s a preference, but it doesn’t mean I’m gay in my being.

And there lies the rub, I think:  why I’m not “Gay and Catholic” but rather just the first of sinners and Orthodox.

There is a huge discussion among those who wish to live the Christian life as to what language to use: am I queer?  Am I gay?  Am I homosexual? Am I Same-Sex Attracted?  I agree with Eve that I do, in fact, experience my sexuality as a huge part of my life.  It has, really, driven my choices of friends, my living situations and even my job choices for much of my life.  But: is that the way it’s supposed to be?  Or are these choices and other things some of the harmful effects in my life?  Honestly, this is where language of “intrinsic disorder” may come in handy. A Roman Catholic document on ordaining celibate gay men explained that there is some sort sexual malfunction going on that may, in fact, result in social failure as well.  I know that some of my closest and dearest friendships (off line and on) have begun with me saying “Whoa, he’s cute.”  It’s taken me nearly 50 years to learn how to develop friendships with women.  But I don’t know – I don’t know at all – if this is because I’m sexually attracted to men or because I have spent a huge portion of my life acting on that attraction. I don’t know if the same social failures happen for women, but I do know of the reverse stereotypes and, to be honest, Eve’s book seemed at moments (to a male reader) to display and even justify some of them.

Eve is supported in her choices by other parts of the internet: many people on my twitter feed are not just “same sex attracted” but are “gay”.  Spiritual Friends blog seems to agree here.  I am aware of Roman Catholic clergy who feel that “being” gay offers some specific gifts for ministry. Even the Roman Catholic teaching on same sex attraction, including the “intrinsic disorder” position seems in some readings to indicate some “beingness” to gayness.  (I don’t want to get corrections from Theologians on this: I know that the teach of the RCC says that any sex outside of marriage is disordered.)  This is another reason I am not Catholic and yet another place where, legal language aside, Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism agree.  But the quoted document on sexuality says that this is not part of my nature.

Eve and others argue that her gayness has provided blessings in her life. I don’t doubt that – I can confirm the same feeling about things in my life – but that is not a quality of goodness: it is rather a quality of God. God will always take what we offer in thanksgiving and return it to us filled with grace.  It doesn’t mean that that very thing is not broken.  There are whole websites devoted to how to bake communion bread for the Byzantine liturgy.  These sites advise that no oil should be used, no milk, no lard, no sugar,  nothing other than yeast, flour, and salt. That these pointers have to be made (one site describing even the visible effects of such inclusions) means that some Orthodox baker has at least at times made bread with them.  No worries: the Body and Blood of Christ were communicated in that liturgy.  It just wasn’t optimal.  Ditto gay: I’m not worried about God being able to bless me.  It’s just not optimal. Something is Broken.  God’s strength is made perfect in my weakness, though.

How we got here and what to do with “here” are all up for grabs and I think (perhaps) Eve and I disagree. But having decided not to stay here, Eve and I agree.  Having opted for submission to the teachings of the Church on human sexuality, how to move forward Eve offers a painfully honest – and joyful – assessment of the life we have chosen to live.

Eve confronts the very few options available for the celibate man or woman in the Church today: where to live, what to do.  While I am with Eve on this, I know there are some of my fellow churchmen who feel there are only two “really Orthodox” options available for a “really Orthodox” person, Marriage or the Monastery. While there is no justification for that from the saints or from history, I do want to point out that for some Orthodox including some clergy, the conversation stops here.  “You’re not getting married, then go away.”  Convents and Monasteries thus become a place to send all the troublesome folks.  My only comment here is that sending me to a house filled with bearded single men throws a hundred red flags on the play. Sending all  the gays to the same place seems too stereotypical. I have also read at least one Orthodox writer who insists there were never any homosexual men in “really Orthodox” monasteries.  Both extremes seem wrong to me, and the question of monasticism as salvific has to be answered in each individual context.

Eve assumes we’re going to live in the world at some point.  She asks questions about our social life, about our jobs, about volunteer work.  She wonders if the “nuclear” families at the parish might open up to include singles.  In Orthodoxy this is a given in some ways: when you ask someone to be a godparent they become a part of your family.  There are even words in Greek and Russian for the relationship.  In Russian tradition there are even words for the relationship between me and the godmother of my godchild as well as his parents.  Kum (male) and Kuma (female) are consanguineous, at least as it was explained to me.  Anyway, godparent/godsiblinghood are ways to expand the family.  In traditional cultures, of course, back in the Orthodox “Homeland”, the extended family was a real thing, including not only blood relations but servants and feudal obligations, social contacts and ecclesial commitments.

Here in America, however, we may only have an option for close friendships: and Eve spends a long time discussing these.  This reflection, however, has gone on long enough. I will get to her idas about friendships in part two!

O Oriens – the 5th Advent Meditation

 Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

 Dawn, splendor of eternal light, and sun of justice, come, and shine on those seated in darkness, and in the shadow of death.

When Jesus said, Ego sum lux mudi, I am the light of the world (St John 8:12). What does that mean? What does it mean when we call him the “Sun of Justice” or when we hymn him, as in the Phos Hilaron, as the “light of the glory of the Father”?

What we mean is that Jesus is the light by which we see.  Not just spiritually, but at all. The Wednesday morning hymn of the Western Office makes this point, drawing the comparison between Christ and the dawn:

When breaks the day, and dawn grows bright,
Christ nearer seems, the Light of Light:
From us, like shades that night-time brings,
Drive forth, O Light, all darksome things. 

Earth’s dusky veil is torn away,
Pierced by the sparkling beams of day:
Our life resumes its hues apace,
Soon as our Day-Star shews his face. 

So thee, O Christ , alone we seek,
With conscience pure and temper meek:
With tears and chants we humbly pray
That thou wouldst guide us through each day. 

For many a shade obscures each sense
Which needs thy beams to purge it thence:
Light of the Morning Star, illume,
Serenely shining, all our gloom.

Many a shade obscures each sense which needs Thy beams… not just the sun’s rays but the Son’s light: the light of lights.  The sun is only a reflection of God.

This thing is driving me this Advent: God is the first – everything else follows.  If the Sun reminds us of God it is because God is light in his essence: Everything else is created light.  Jesus says “I am the Truth”.  Everything in this world that is true is a reflection of Jesus who is, in his person, Truth itself.

The myths we made before the dawn came to us are true because of the Light himself. They are echoes before the fact from the omega point of all time on the Cross. We do not liken God to the King of Beasts and make stories, but rather the King of Beasts is and our stories are felt as truth because God is who he is in his person.

I stood these toys around a Christmas tree on a desk in my office.  Everyone – believers or not – instantly knew what was being said because of the Truth they represent echoes off them.  I don’t think God’s like an Android figurine (or a porceline one) but rather God is truth and pretty much anything can reflect it, or echo it back.  We see God in a giant mountain or a galaxy or a lover’s eyes because God is who God is.

Dawn means something at all because of Christmas.

O Clavis – 4th Advent Meditation

 Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel, qui aperis, et nemo claudit, claudis, et nemo aperuit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
 Key of David, and sceptre of the house of Israel, you open, and no one shuts, you shut, and no one opens: come, and lead the prisoner from jail, seated in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Orthodoxy says that when our first parents sinned, they condemned all of us to death: not out of guilt, mind you, but rather genetics.  If you are immortal, your children will be as well.  If you are mortal, however, your children will also die. We are in the shadow of death not because of some “stain of original sin”, but rather because we are the legitimate children of our parents.  More: we die because God’s mercy lets us die or else sin would go on forever. 

Jesus has trampled down death by death  it is death that becomes the gate of mercy by which we escape death, the real death: severance from God caused by sin.

In the shadow of death we all lived in fear: but now, freed, we see death as the gateway of life; as a babe in the womb may think of birth as a terror, but it is only the beginning, so death is for us: scary perhaps, but only the beginning of joy.
Jesus is the Key that unlocks this mystery. It’s totally not enough that Jesus was perfect, or that Jesus died “for our sins”. Jesus had to die as a human so that humans would never die again. 
Yes, of course, we die: the world dies, everything in this world dies.  (Genetics, remember?)  But death is no longer the end: it is the beginning.  “For thy faithful people, O Lord, life is not ended, but changed” as says the burial rite in the new form.  We are not taken from life, we are rather moved from life to life, from strength to strength, like sparks among the stubble. 
One can be tempted to see this in a “gnostic” light, where this life is not real (like in Plato’s cave) and the next life is real.  But no, this life is real. Death is real. The next life is more real.  We see through a glass darkly now, but we do, in fact, see.  The struggles of this world are real, the jail is real, the jailer is real.  We are in real danger of death – the real death, severence from God, if we die in our sins.
It’s just that our fear is unwarrented.
And Christmas is the end of all that.
All things work for the good of those that love the Lord.
And nothing – nothing – can sever us from the Love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

O Adonai – 2nd Advent Meditation

 Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

 Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

In singing about the House of Israel, it must be remembered: The Church is Israel.  In this hymn, the Church is not projecting Jesus back onto an Ancient Jewish Scene.  The Church is saying “This is what really happened, and other readings are wrong.”

The Church lays claim to the title “Faithful Remnant”.  As Israel was lost, leaving only Judah, so now, the unbelievers are lost: leaving only the faithful Israel who follow the Messiah of God.  And so, the same God who was in the bush that didn’t burn, who gave the law on Sinai, is now the God whose fire burns in the womb of the Virigin yet she is not consumed, and who, himself, gives the law in the Sermon on the Mount.  As Jesus was seen as the unspoken Wisdom of God who orders all things, here he is the very Action of God who does all things.

In the Byzantine rite of Matins we sing “God is the Lord who has revealed himself to us.”  The revelation of God is God’s own business.  But he has entrusted the experience of that revelation, and the preaching of it to his people, the Church.  We find in that Revelation that God is the Almighty One, the Actor, the First Mover: but he comes in response to our cry.

As I wrote last time, the doing of Liturgy in Community, of Life lived in that liturgy is as of a Dance before the Throne of God, with God.  A dance requires a leader and a follower. But who is who? My Sunday School Teacher, Jeannette, used to say “The Holy Spirit is a Southern gentleman.  He wants to love you, but he waits for you to invite him to.”  God’s outstreached arm waits for us to call him.  He may only come as he chooses, but he will only come when we pray.  This is the error of the world: that it doesn’t want what it is offered.

When we call for the Almighty Fire of God, we get a helpless babe in a manger.  The world wants lightings and earthquakes.  We offer dirty diapers and breastfeeding. This is the Almighty Arm of the Creator of the universe: a tiny hand wrapped around your finger with surprising strength.

Israel means “Wrestles with God”. Let us read “wrestle” as “dance”:  what will you dance with the tiny clasp on your forefinger?

O Sapientia – 1st Advent Meditation

A blessed Advent! For my friends in the Western Ecclesial traditions, a little explanation: the Eastern Pre-Nativity Fast starts today. Advent is, of course, a Western Name, but we call it the Advent Fast here in America’s mostly-convert communities. Yes it is a bit longer than Western Advent, but for what it’s worth Advent is also a fast, like (or close to) the fast of Lent. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is treated to a sumptuous feast by his host who, in response to the compliments, reminds his guest, “It is a fast.”  For Orthodox Christians of the Western Rite, Advent is a period of fasting (reduced food intake) and abstinence (from flesh meat) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

This is the first of my seven Advent Meditations for this year.  It’s an annual practice, and it helps the Pre-Christmas focus. The meditations, as always, take a starting place the Great O Antiphons that are recited on the nights leading up to Christmas in the monasteries of the West.

Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter, suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

Wisdom, who proceeds from the mouth of the Most High, reaching out mightily from end to end, and sweetly arranging all things: come to teach us the way of prudence.

I was reminded on Friday that the Wisdom of God is Jesus, the Pre-incarnate Logos: when the Word is spoken, the Silent Wisdom becomes the Verbum, the Word of God, reaching out mightily to order all things from Alpha to Omega, from End to End. There is nothing that is not God’s action through his word.

But humans… now: we can get it wrong and, let’s face it, the Church is filled with humans who will, often get it wrong.  We pray for wisdom (Sophia = Jesus) to teach us the way of prudence.

Orthodoxy is very circumspect.  We don’t have one man to be omnipotent in the crafting of rules. We don’t even – officially – teach that the Ecumenical Councils, themselves, are infallible: there are many actions of the councils that are, essentially, ignored. (Have you seen anyone forced to Abstain from Communion for 10 or more years while praying on their knees in the back of the Church?) Orthodoxy is a religion of prudence. While this saint or that elder may, himself, be very strict or very free with his spiritual children, it is not the saints that are infallible, in their teachings, but rather the Church, herself.  And the Church speaks most clearly in her Liturgical Texts, both east and west, in her prayers. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: The Law of Prayer is the Law of Belief, or “As you pray so you believe”.  Only the Apostles’ writings to their Children carry the weight of law (as the New Testament) but even then, the Orthodox Church is not a “Bible Church” because she wrote the Bible.  The Bible is there for the application of it to the lives of people.  There is no one place to point and say: believe all that and you’ll be Orthodox.

Orthodoxy is a life – life in communion.  Orthodoxy – East and West – is liturgical life.  Liturgy as  a way of life is, it must be admitted, sloppy.  What one parish does, the other doesn’t. What one saint admires, the other admonishes. Basil loved verbosity, Chrysostom brevity.  The former, however, was brief in the pulpit while the latter was quite the opposite!  Seraphim Rose (whom many regard as holy, if not clearly a saint) could be seen as quite the controversial convert whom some forbid to their enquirers.  Mt Athos is either the holiest place on earth or a place to send all the single men in your parish just to keep them out of trouble.

I like rules, truth be told. Rules are the same for everyone. They are black and white. They are clearly lined up along the wall to prevent you from escaping.  Liturgy, however, is designed to give you something to do if you don’t wander away.  Stand here – and do this.  Not, “DON’T DO THAT!!!!” Rules do, in fact, make life easier: but they are not living. 

Liturgy is living: it is a dance before the Throne of God the Father with God the Son, conducted by God the Holy Spirit living and breathing in all of us.  It is confession and communion where my sins become the percussion session, where the absolution is the brass, and where my prayers, coupled with the prayers of the priest and all the church, is the strings and the woodwinds. And we dance.

Orthodoxy is life – not a rule book.  It must be lived in community, in liturgy: this is why we pray for wisdom and prudence in Advent.

I pray for a blessed Advent Fast for all of us, East and West.  Meditation #2 will be posted on the 20th.

The Truth about Halloween

TIZ THAT Time of the year again when accusations will fly: you stole our holidays!  You’re being Satanic! We will be bombarded with bad history and bad social science and bad theology. I won’t even bother to link to the most common Christian “proof sheet” that takes the Irish name of the holiday (Samhain) and makes it into a god’s name – a god to whom human sacrifices were offered. This deity never existed. Samhain is simply Irish gaelic meaning “End of Summer”. It is still the name of the Month of November in the Irish language. I will also not bother to link to sources produced by Modern Neopagans who get their history all wrong, too. This holiday was not stolen by the Church from them. Firstly because their patterns are modern – based on a Christian culture – so their patterns are not the “real, ancient practice” of any people. Secondly because their ancient feasts were not celebrated on fixed calendars. After ten-plus years as a pagan and twenty plus years as a Christian I’m just annoyed by all the politically-biased claims out there.
A good deal of the modern evangelical and fundamentalist (and Orthodox covert) complaints about Halloween are just badly disguised ultra-Protestant Anti-Roman Catholicism. In some cases (Jack Chick comes to mind) it’s not very thinly disguised at all. Other sects often succumb to such uber-frummery, too. When I was first Chrismated as Orthodox my only reply was “it’s not my holiday”. In this I was following my priest – Fr J. Of course, considering the Orthodox Western Rite celebrates All Saints day with the Christian West we must admit that, in fact, some Orthodox do celebrate All Hallows’ Eve. So also do Roman Catholics, Anglicans and some (most?) Lutherans. In other words a majority of Christians around the world have this day on their liturgical calendar.
We are, therefore, going to have to define some terms. “A Christian Holiday” in this conversation means that it is part of the Christian liturgical calendar.  In East and West, being on the calendar may mean various liturgical functions – and east and west do it differently.  But both East and West treat their most important feast days the same: there’s a Eucharistic liturgy (communion service) and there is something of a complex evening prayer the night before.  All Saints Day fits this pattern: there is a communion service on the day of, and a complex evening prayer service on the vigil, the “Eve”.  It’s this “Eve” that is “Hallowe’en”.

A pagan holiday is one that is non-Christian, or Pre-Christian and, usually, localized: there was no pre-Christian religious tradition that was pan-European.  There were Celts and Romans and Greeks, there were Scythians, Gauls, Goths, Visigoths, Egyptians, etc. Each one of these ethnic groups would have had pagan holidays.

Stealing our holiday means exactly that: moving in, remaking and rewriting it until it matches our pattern not yours.

It is my assertion that the celebration of All Hallows eve is Christian; that is was never Pagan; and that it is, in fact, the Pagans who are stealing holidays.

Let’s first take a look at three parts: the Eastern Christian, the Western Christian and the Non-Christian.

The East
In the east, St John Chrysostom (4th Century) set a celebration in memory of all the “other” saints on the Sunday after Pentecost. Since he did not (nor does his successor) have universal jurisdiction, this holiday would have, of course, only applied to those dioceses and parishes under his patriarchate. Since it was a good idea, however, the tradition spread among the other Orthodox. Additionally, in some places the second Sunday after Pentecost is observed as All local Saints. Thus in the Russian Churches, this is All Saints of Russia. In the Orthodox Church in America, that Sunday is “All Saints of America” but it is not so named among the various non-Autocephalous or “self-ruled” groups in the US.
This celebration was not commanded to those churches under the Patriarchate of Rome although the tradition began spreading there, as well.
The West
In AD 609 or 610, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the ancient Roman Pantheon as a Christian Church.  The new name was St Mary and All Martyrs and the anniversary of the consecration, 13 May, was a feast celebrated in all the western Church. This was the beginning of All Saints’ Day in the West. It’s important to note two things: (a) this happens after the coming of St Augustine to Canterbury in 587; and (b) it doesn’t happen on 1 November. These are important because of the claim (sometimes offered in error on these pages as well) that Augustine merely baptised a pagan feast day he found in England and that it came back to Rome. Nope. Sorry.
About 100 years later another Pope, Gregory III, dedicated another All Saints’ chapel – this one in St Peter’s – on 1 November and began to commemorate the feast on that day. The next Pope Gregory made that feast (on 1 November) of universal practice.
The Roman Martyrology, still read daily in monastic orders, tells the story this way:

Festívitas ómnium Sanctórum, quam in honórem beátæ Dei Genitrícis Vírginis Maríæ et sanctórum Mártyrum Bonifátius Papa Quartus, cum templum Pántheon tértio Idus Maji dedicásset, célebrem et generálem instítuit agi quotánnis in urbe Roma. Sed Gregórius item Quartus póstmodum decrévit, eándem festivitátem, quæ váriis modis jam in divérsis Ecclésiis celebrabátur, in honórem ómnium Sanctórum solémniter hac die ab univérsa Ecclésia perpétuo observári. 

The Festival of All Saints, which Pope Boniface IV, after the dedication of the Pantheon, ordained to be kept generally and solemnly every year on the 13th of May, in the city of Rome, in honour of the blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and of the holy martyrs. It was afterwards decreed by Gregory IV that this feast, which was then celebrated in many dioceses, but at different times, should be on this day kept by the whole Church in honour of all the saints.
(From the Internet Archive.)

All of these Christian dates are very important because these dates mean the festival of All Saints (and thus the Vigil the night before) is a feast of the pre-Schism Patriarchate of Rome. It’s Orthodox. 31 October/1 November is not a Pagan festival.
3 The Real Pagan Stuff
The real Pagan strand is harder to trace. As noted, there is no pan-European culture or religion.  Not every Pagan European culture had a festival here.  To find any festival at all at this point of the year, we have to leave the Roman Empire and go to the edge of the known world: Ireland. There was a festival in ancient Ireland as the Sun reach halfway between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice. The bards report this feast was celebrated on the Hill of Tara with the Ard Rí – the High King. Should one visit Tara today one will see a “passage grave” on the hill. In the back of the grave are small spirals carved into the wall. Once a year – around November 7th on the modern Gregorian calendar – as the sun passes the half-way point between the Equinox and the Solstice, a shaft of light penetrates the cave and strikes the spirals. Does this indicated the feast of Tara? Don’t know. But it does show that the astronomical point – not a calendar date, per se – was marked at Tara. To be certain the Pagans in the only part of Europe not conquered by Rome didn’t use the Roman Calendar – and so wouldn’t have known what 31 October was. The passage on Tara shoes that (in modern terms) it was the Sun at 15 Degrees of Scorpio that was celebrated – not a specific day.
Bonfires were lit that night, but we know no more of the festival at all.  We don’t know that the Irish even had anything to say about the dead on this night.  Anthropologically it would make sense for this festival to be a harvest festival and it would be likely that the dead might be invoked or appease at harvest time… but that’s it. We don’t know.
Would the Church have adopted the pagan practice of a remote tribe from the hinterlands and commanded it to the whole of the western world? Unlikely.

Bad Victorian Mythology

Costumes? Trick or Treat? Pumpkins? Mostly bad Victorian-era Scholarship – and that mostly American, not European at all. Like us moderns, the Americans of the Victorian era had a penchant for things that “feel ancient” and, like us, they tended to make stuff up when they didn’t know the answer. They just call it “ancient tradition”. Americans feel guilty sometimes that most countries have indoor plumbing older than our culture.
Our American custom was, until recently, to becostume ourselves and trick-or-treat on Thanksgiving! In fact this may go back to a Roman Catholic custom on St Martins day: and and this custom was moved to Halloween in the early 20th Century and, as things happen it is the “American Style” Halloween that is only now being imported into Europe. It’s our American customs, superimposed on All Hallows Eve that we now deck out as “ancient” and then call pagan.
Everything else we claim to know about the holiday is from this final strand of Bad American Victorian Scholarship. So we like to blame wearing masks on the ancient Celts. We claim the sweets should be offered to the Ghosts. The Jack O’Lantern is a candle lit to show the dead how to get back to their homes. All of this is without proof of course – positive or negative. The ancient religions were not literate. They didn’t write it down in guidebooks on How to Be a Druid. Almost all of these later inventions have to do with Protestant ideas of the all the departed commemorated on 1 & 2 November. Romans say they are saints – but Protestants know there are no Catholics in heaven so all their “saints” must really be spectres and ghouls. Having made up a pretty fun holiday (admit it!) it caught on! Even Europeans now like this idea.
31 October is Not Pagan.
Modern Neopagans take up this theme – using American Christian customs! – when they say “Christians stole our holiday”. In fact, 1 November was never their holiday – it was, however, the closest Christian party to their own historical party at 15 Degrees Scorpio. So they moved their gew-gaws and froo-froo a week over or so and stopped counting days by small spirals carved on walls and tried this new Roman invention – the Fixed Calendar. They did this so as not to be continually persecuted by the Christians – they wanted to blend in. I’m clear on that – and Christians need to be honest about our persecution of other religions throughout our history. We see the same traditions in Yoruban cultures where their Afro-Caribbean and South American cultures adopt Catholicism as a cover for their African Gods. In like manner, albeit, a thousand years earlier, the Celtic tribes covered up their pagan traditions with a Catholic overlay.
We might better say that the Pagans, to avoid persecution, stole a Christian Holiday. Certainly the idea of the Western All Saints being stolen from the Celtic “day of the dead” is not at all historic.  Since the ancient religions did not write stuff down, we have no way of knowing from Pagan sources if the Festival of Tara was anything to do specifically with the dead or the “Veil between the worlds” getting thin. We don’t even know it was “New Year” for them – we just made that up too. Like other pagan festivals some of this stuff may have carried over: the “bonfire holidays” in England are mostly pagan festivals that were transferred to Christian days. This is especially clear on St John’s day in the Summer when they light the midsummer bonfires. This tradition of moving traditions to the biggest party continued through history: now the Mid-Autumn bonfires are not lit on Halloween, but rather on Guy Fawkes Night (Nov 5) which is coincidentally much closer to 15 Degrees Scorpio.
The Aztecs?
Since I’m now in California, it’s worth talking about the Day of the Dead, Dìa de los Muertos, one of my favourite times of the year to switch cultures – we have no idea at all what the ancient Celts did, where as the Day of the Dead is a living tradition. Some Protestant commentaries are quick to point out that this is Pagan Catholicism. Of course it is. But it is Catholicism – not paganism – that rules the day.
The Aztec (Ancient Mexican) Calendar had almost 30 days dedicated to the dead in or around the Gregorian month of August. These were dedicated to the “Little Dead” (children) and the Adult Dead. Within a few decades of the Spanish conquest all the traditions of these festivals had been transferred to the WR feasts of All Saints and All Souls. The Church didn’t move them there – nor did she “take over” the Aztec feasts. Instead – as in the case of the Celts and the other pagans – local traditions were, effectively, baptised and brought in. They were seen as way-pointers on the way to Christ who is The Truth and therefore all things true point to him. There is nothing to be afraid of in the truth: nothing at all. And anything that really is True is Christ.
Now does any of this mean that the modern, Non-Christian silliness that goes on in Schools is really-Christian or even Anti-Christian? No. No more than singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is an act of Christian piety although I know some who would file a law suit nonetheless.

Most of the secular holidays that happen now  – from Christmas to Easter to Halloween – are decidedly not Christian and should be avoided.  The revelries that happen on this night are lewd, crude and are often designed to mock Christianity.  That is Satanic.  But bobbing for apples, trick or treating – or using this day and season to commemorate the dead and the departed are not Satanic at all.  In fact, it’s an Orthodox practice that is so evidently healthy that even the pagans took it over: All Saints Day (and the vigil) and All Souls Day and the whole month of November.  Should the kids be allowed to have that fun? Well, that’s up to the parents. 

The feast of Christ the King

Crown Him with many crowns, the Lamb upon His throne.
Hark! How the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own.
Awake, my soul, and sing of Him who died for thee,
And hail Him as thy matchless King through all eternity.

Crown Him the virgin’s Son, the God incarnate born,
Whose arm those crimson trophies won which now His brow adorn;
Fruit of the mystic rose, as of that rose the stem;
The root whence mercy ever flows, the Babe of Bethlehem.

Crown Him the Son of God, before the worlds began,
And ye who tread where He hath trod, crown Him the Son of Man;
Who every grief hath known that wrings the human breast,
And takes and bears them for His own, that all in Him may rest.

Crown Him the Lord of life, who triumphed over the grave,
And rose victorious in the strife for those He came to save.
His glories now we sing, who died, and rose on high,
Who died eternal life to bring, and lives that death may die.

Crown Him the Lord of peace, whose power a scepter sways
From pole to pole, that wars may cease, and all be prayer and praise.
His reign shall know no end, and round His piercèd feet
Fair flowers of paradise extend their fragrance ever sweet.

Crown Him the Lord of love, behold His hands and side,
Those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.
No angel in the sky can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye at mysteries so bright.

Crown Him the Lord of Heaven, enthroned in worlds above,
Crown Him the King to Whom is given the wondrous name of Love.
Crown Him with many crowns, as thrones before Him fall;
Crown Him, ye kings, with many crowns, for He is King of all.

Crown Him the Lord of lords, who over all doth reign,
Who once on earth, the incarnate Word, for ransomed sinners slain,
Now lives in realms of light, where saints with angels sing
Their songs before Him day and night, their God, Redeemer, King.

Crown Him the Lord of years, the Potentate of time,
Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime.
All hail, Redeemer, hail! For Thou has died for me;
Thy praise and glory shall not fail throughout eternity.

Words: Verses 1, 4, 5, 6 & 9: Mat­thew Bridg­es, The Pass­ion of Je­sus, 1852; verses 2 & 3: Godfrey Thring, Hymns and Sac­red Lyr­ics, 1874.

Illiteracy and Superstition

Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of people talk about books, specifically books in the Christian tradition.  Some people seem to want to imagine that the advent and popularity of digital media means something (bad) for Christianity as a religion intimately connected with books (or with The Book). It can not be denied that Christianity is historically tied to the development of the book: at a time when all “proper” literature was tied to scrolls, the Church opted to go for the easy-to-carry and low-brow codex.   One way to look at that is that there is something about books important to the Church.  Another way to look at it, however, is that the Church saw a useful technology and took it over.

I’d suggest that doing the same to digital media would be the best course of action: we did it to TV and Radio as well.

There is, however, rather a lot of ruminating about the changes in the message caused by changing the media, as if overnight we’ve all forgotten that Jesus is the Word of God, who communicates himself: it is us who sow, but it is God who reaps the harvest.  The Medium is NOT the message: Jesus is not confined to a book or scroll or screen.

But all of these discussions deny the very truth of our Faith: Jesus, for 2000 years, has depended not on written text, but on spoken words: person-to-person communication is the means by which the Gospel is spread. Only recently have persons claiming to follow Christ opted for absentee evangelism: the Bible left alone in the hotel room, the bumper sticker on the ass end of the car,  the humorous t-shirt spotted in the crowd, or the tract passed out to random strangers on the street as if by some magic incantation Jesus would appear in target’s heart, or if the faith was spread like some STD by random social contact.

We’ve begun using the internet like that as well and despite all urgings to the contrary (even by writers of blogs) we seem to want our websites to be silent landmines of evangelism.  Ask your priest, we say, as we provide a humble answer our humble selves.

When we know the faith is lived: the faith is communicated by hearing. 

For 2000 years, the reality of the Church has not been found in reading or writing, but in living in community.  While we have some amazing writers in the faith, the very well educated and verbose Fathers and Mothers of the Church are not the majority experience. Most clergy for most of the history of the Church have had enough education to manage the liturgies and feed their families.  The majority of parochial clergy dealt with laity who were not literate – and yet managed by God’s grace to live in holiness, raise children and die to the world.  Most Christians never wrote anything and only a terrible few could read. Icons, stained glass and frescos were the illustrated texts to which they had recourse. Most prayers were memorized, and the best use for a book of prayers was to keep it under the bed during child birth to protect the mother and child.

Nowadays when every Christian of any stripe writes a blog for a global audience, we forget that we (me) are presuming to take to ourselves (myself) the office entrusted to only a tiny handful of Christians in the past: the creation of written teaching texts.  And yet we do so as easily and fearlessly as if we were getting in our car to drive to Wal*Mart.

Lord have mercy on us all.